Face Off: Should the H-1B Cap Be Raised?

ITAA President Harris Miller and Prof. Norman Matloff square off on the extent of the information technology labor shortage and the need for more foreign IT workers.

Yes!

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va.

The U.S. is undergoing an Internet revolution, which has created an extraordinarily rapid demand for IT skills. There are currently 845,000* vacancies for IT workers in this country. We need to bridge the skills gap through this adjustment period while we revamp education and training programs, and one way to do so is to bring in more skilled foreign workers.

The H-1B visa cap has so far proved inadequate. This year, we ran out of available H-1B visas in March. If Congress fails to extend the cap, the losers will be U.S. companies and U.S. workers, because companies will start taking projects offshore.

Opponents argue about protecting American jobs and wages, but the H-1B visa program accounts for just one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall U.S. workforce.

We're competing in a global economy, and if, at the end of the day, we let India, Ireland, the Philippines and South Africa take jobs away, we will eventually see not only partial movement of projects offshore but wholesale movement. Our global dominance will wane. It's inexpensive to move an IT operation abroad, and it's a myth that the only smart people in the world live in the U.S.

Long term, the U.S. must commit to having students in schools studying many more hours per year. Our best universities and students are the best in the world, but our average universities and students have to compete, too.

We need year-round schools or longer school days, with more time mandated in math and science courses, if kids are going to be ready for a 21st century workforce. In addition, colleges and universities, which traditionally are slow to change, need to enhance their computer science programs and lab resources.

* Figure based on an ITAA 2000 study

The ITAA provides public-policy leadership on behalf of 400 direct corporate members and 26,000 affiliate members.

No!

Norm Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at DavisThe government should drastically reduce the H-1B visa cap. My reasoning has to do with the vast majority of IT job applicants within this country who are already being turned down.

H-1B visa holders in the high-tech field work almost exclusively as programmers, not in other IT jobs such as marketing, customer support, software testing and so on.

But employers hire only about 2 percent of people who apply for programming jobs at their companies. They acknowledge that they reject the vast majority of applicants without even an interview. If employers were desperate, they couldn't afford to be so picky.

When you talk with some of these employers, you discover that they're not really finding that there's a shortage of IT talent. Rather, they're finding a shortage of IT talent at a wage they want to pay and, specifically, a shortage in work experience with Java, SAP and other specialized programs.

But there's a chicken-and-egg element to this: If on-the-job experience in these programs is as scarce as employers would have us believe, the laws of supply and demand say that skilled workers in these areas should be able to charge a premium for their services.

If employers don't want to pay the market price, they should be willing to train competent programmers in specific programs - an investment that would take only a matter of weeks.

Insincere employers use the shortage of program-specific experience as an excuse to hire younger Americans or foreign workers who are less expensive. The sincere employees have bought into this need for these specific skills and may honestly not realize that any competent programmer can quickly pick up a new program.

I fully support bringing in the best and the brightest workers from around the world, which was the intention of the H-1B program. But that's a small fraction of the workers we need - maybe about 10,000 people per year.

Matloff says his research into the H-1B controversy stems from his interest in age discrimination issues.

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